It’s time we spoke about Moore Street. Moore Street is where the 1916 Rebellion ended and this project began.
At the beginning of Easter Week 1916, when reading the Proclamation a bemused Dubliner asked if it was a play. By the Friday the play was almost at an end. The theatre was Moore Street, the backdrop darkened disheveled rooms, cobbled laneways and empty barricaded shops. The actors terrified civilians, panicked Volunteers and British soldiers. The sounds were the roar of burning buildings on Henry Street and occasional gunfire. The drama of the week was reaching its climax.
In November 2011, I found myself sitting in a room on the first floor of an abandoned house on Moore Street with a planning board on my knee. Fellow archaeologist, Franc Myles was calling out measurements. I was drawing an elevation of a connecting wall between two terraced houses that had once had a large hole punched through. We had removed the plaster to find where the hole had been repaired and filled in.
This was the most recent archaeological investigation I had worked on and the first battlefield survey I had carried out; this timeline is often referred to in theoretical archaeological literature as the “contemporary past”. I never imagined 1916 could be investigated by archaeologists. I assumed it to be the terrain of historians, but the history books only went so far. What was even more unusual was that we were investigating the physical evidence of a chain of events that occurred during a 24 hour period from Friday the 28th to Saturday the 29th of April 1916, using the descriptions of the people involved to guide us.
‘… the walls were quite thin, and there was no bother breaking them. We reached as far as Price’s [Nos 22-23] or O’Hanlon’s [Nos 20-21] which was a fish shop. I remember the smells there. We spent Friday night barricading all the houses that we occupied by throwing down all the furniture from the rooms – clearing all the rooms – down the stairways into the halls, blocking up the doorways.’ BMS WS 899 (Oscar Traynor)
The aim was to illustrate the experience of the fighting on Moore Street whilst also taking into account the lives of Dubliners caught up in the conflict. More traditionally, much of the received narrative has been centered around the GPO. After its evacuation on Easter Friday, the terrace of shops and tenement dwellings on the east side of Moore Street became the final HQ Garrison of the leaders of the Rising and over 250 Volunteers, this was where the surrender was agreed upon.
On exiting the GPO The O’Rahilly led a charge of men towards the British barricade at the top of Moore Street; this move was to prove fatal. Shot down after ducking into a doorway The Ó’Rahilly spent his final hours lying on Sackville Lane, dying in a pool of blood. The British were aware of him being still alive, but chose to leave him there.
One of the few artefacts retrieved from Moore Street is a farewell note addressed to his wife, found in his jacket pocket:
“Written after I was shot – Darling Nancy I was shot leading a rush up Moore Street took refuge in a doorway. While I was there I heard the men pointing out where I was + I made a bolt for the lane I am in now. I got more than one bullet I think, Tons and tons of love dearie to you + the boys + to Nell + Anna. It was a good fight anyhow. Please deliver this to Nannie O’Rahilly, 40 Herbert Park, Dublin Good bye darling”
Once in the houses, the Volunteers quietly tunneled through the party walls throughout the night. At this point the men were completely exhausted:
“We were using a very large crowbar, and each man would take his turn at the bar for a few minutes and then stop to rest, a fresh man taking his place”. BMH WS 156 (Seamus Robinson).
Then men dispersed themselves among the houses keeping an open communication through the freshly hewn openings through houses 8-10 and 9-25 Moore Street.
Too bone weary to climb, many had to be carried through. At this point Connolly’s wounds were so bad he had to be passed through the openings on a stretcher; he thanked the Volunteers as they strained to carry him in a doomed last ditch attempt to lay low whilst formulating their next move to Ned Daly and his troops at the Four Courts.
Very few people realise that for the last 24 hours of the Rebellion the leaders and their exhausted men were huddled in small tenements, surrounded by British soldiers and terrified civilians. These images conjure up a far less glorious yet equally dramatic piece of theatre than if it were to have taken place in a burning GPO.
While we were working in the empty upper floors, the familiar cries of the Moore Street vendors wafted in through the broken windows and decaying walls; these women, their mothers and grandmothers have been selling produce from their market stalls for generations. It struck me how little the sounds on this street had changed since the men had passed through these walls. As I read the witness statements collected from the Volunteers involved in the street’s occupation, the sounds outside began to change.
On the Saturday morning, a Volunteer named James Kavanagh (BMH WS 388) described overhearing a five-year old girl who had stood outside a shop on the street below my window crying to her mother who was too terrified to come out,” Mammy, Mammy my grandad is dead”, her repeated cries rang in his ears. What made it all the more poignant is that he been haunted by the unanswered pleas of the dying man the night before for a glass of water. Despite being warned not to go outside the man went out onto the street to seek safer accommodation for his family due to the unsettling presence of the Volunteers. The Volunteers first came across him just hours before huddled in a room in No.12 Moore Street, with his daughter and her children.
The reason the civilian casualties were particularly bad on Moore Street was because a shoot-to-kill policy was being enforced by the British, killing anyone they saw in a attempt to finish the Rebellion on the basis that some of the Volunteers were dressed in civilian clothes. Their barricade on the junction of Moore Street and Parnell Street was heavily manned with two machine guns and no shortage of rifles. Outside and in the laneways confusion was rife, there were reports of Volunteers shooting their own men by mistake and a 16 year old girl, Brigid McKane, was shot in the head by a stray bullet as Volunteers attempted to break a lock on a door she was standing behind. The priest who came to bless the body broke into tears as soon as he saw her remains.
“I felt very sorry for the people who lived in these houses”, James Kavanagh reflects in his witness statement. “By going into them we were bringing death and destruction … mostly we would find we had burst from a hall or landing into a living or bedroom where frightened people were huddled together”. BMH WS 388
With five in total, the civilian deaths were rising rapidly and the Volunteers were becoming despondent as their leaders were unsure of what to do next; it gradually dawned on them that they were surrounded. It is said that Pearse finally decided to surrender after looking down at the civilian casualties on Moore Street, which included an elderly man whose body was seemingly wrapped in a white sheet as though it were a shroud. He had used it as a flag of truce which was ignored, despite him being unarmed.
Seán MacDermott’s appeal brought order to borderline mutiny on Moore Street, as he explained how many more civilians would perish if they fought on. He told them they’d fought a gallant fight and that their remaining duty now was to survive. The leaders huddled together in a back room in No. 16. Today the empty room is dark and damp, its walls are covered in a distressed blue paint and the corner fire place is empty. It felt eerie, standing there on the boards where Connolly, Pearse and Plunkett discussed the surrender.
The unexpected heroine was Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell whose statements bring more life to the drama. Her bravery and survival instincts led her on her own up Moore Street, passing the O’Rahilly’s hat lying on the ground, to face the British barricade with the offer of surrender which wasn’t accepted on account of her sex. Her womanhood and nurse’s attire are what had saved her from death but let her down when she needed to be taken seriously as a representative of the leaders of the Rebellion. She had to fetch Pearse to formally admit to an unconditional surrender.
Her brave composure is also what carried the despairing news to the other outposts around the city. Time and again she had to to look them in the eye and tell exhausted men, who had spent the week feeding off an intoxicating cocktail of hope and glory, that it was all over.
When we had completed our battlefield investigation and pulled the door shut behind us, our time in the Moore Street houses became another chapter in the history of the street. The survey had been commissioned by a private developer supporting a planning application to build a retail development, where some of the buildings were scheduled for demolition (where Nos. 14-17 had been declared a National Monument in 2007). Little did we know that the discoveries we made would provide the necessary evidence to halt this development in an unprecedented High Court Ruling in April of 2016.
How this particular urban battlefield will be remembered is currently being considered. Due to its neglected state of repair we were able to peel back the render to reveal the repaired openings. It is likely the work would never have been undertaken had the site not been on the cusp of redevelopment. Like in 1916, the street has once again been involved in a strange turn of events.